From the Archives: The 12 Arguments in Every Online Running Debate

From 2008 to 2011 I wrote 68 articles for Runner's Tribe. Alas, after numerous site upgrades and backend changes, they were all lost to history. Or so I thought. 

I recently discovered about 40 of the articles in either final or near-final form. They don't have the images or graphics but for the ones that are A) sufficiently preserved and B) still relevant, I plan to post them here.

Here's an article from August 2010 on online debates. The intro is very much dated and the examples at the end are a fascinating time capsule of track and field in 2010 (I drop references to "Kaki" without any many still remember Abubaker Kaki today?).

Still, the argument types all hold up, and I was even able to add a new 2021 troll argument! What is your go-to argument for settling a running debate?


Originally published with the title "Let the Debates Begin" on August 23, 2010.

We've seen a lot of records fall this season, and a number of other fast times.  David Rudisha just took down Wilson Kipketer's 800m world record, Ryan Gregson surpassed Simon Doyle's old 1500m Australian record, and Chris Solinsky and Bernard Lagat set new American Records in the 10000m and 5000m, respectively. And we've seen Wheating and Manzano put up surprising personal bests in the 1500m and 800m, respectively.

Where records fall, debates rise up to take their place. Is Rudisha's 2010 season better than Kipketer's 1997 campaign? How does Gregson compare to Doyle?  Who had the better season, Solinsky or Lagat? Who is the best middle distance runner in the US, Wheating or Manzano? The great thing about all of these questions is that there's no easy answer. Depending on the athlete, some arguments are stronger and others weaker. And some are just plain dumb.

By my count, there are 12 arguments people make when debating runners' seasons and/or careers. A good message board thread will usually have all of these come up at some point:

12 Arguments in Every Debate

The Hardware Argument: How many championships did they win? The basis of this argument is that there is only one thing that matters, and that's winning. In track, this argument is usually diluted to include the top three, but only when it can't be settled by gold medals.

The Record Books Argument: Where do they rank all-time? This argument assumes the best put up the best marks. Faster, farther and higher = superior. For young runners, this argument is often modified to be relative to age. This is the one argument that tends to hold some weight against the Hardware Argument. Especially when somebody is still the reigning record holder.

The Scoreboard Argument: How did they fare head-to-head with other athletes? It don't mean a thing unless it came at the other guy's expense. This is similar to the Hardware Argument, except that it pertains to all races, not just championships. Unfortunately, this argument can only be used between two athletes in the same era.

The Dominance Argument: How much better were they than their competition? This is related to the Scoreboard Argument, only it measures the quality of the victories. Winning big is superior to just winning. The scale ranges from Haile G outkicking Tergat "barely dominant" to Usain Bolt celebrating his 100m victory and winning by two strides "completely dominant." And yes, this argument can be applied to careers by looking at winning streaks.

The "You had to be there" Argument: How can you appreciate something that can't be captured in statistics? You see this more in other sports than in running, but it often comes up when you debate with old people about "who would have won head-to-head" between athletes from two different eras. If your family was anything like mine, your dad probably used this to end the discussion when you tried to tell him how great your favorite player is.

The Historian Argument: How good was the person given the historical context of the period in which he ran? This argument can be spun in many ways. It can be used to include Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek in the same discussion with Haile G and Kenenisa Bekele. It's also used to argue that champions from "fast" eras were better than those from "slow" eras. Some people even extrapolate this to argue that if runners from previous eras were given our present-day knowledge and training methods they would (or would not) be just as fast. The Historian Argument can get quite creative.

The Socio-economic Argument: How many advantages or disadvantages did the person face? This is an argument that gets abused way too much. Many people want to give bonus points to athletes who ran themselves out of poverty or deduct credit for those who had "excessive" resources at their disposal (i.e. Alter-G treadmills). can be used as a tie-breaker when two athletes seem relatively equal, but it's usually just someone confusing the issue in an effort to be PC. 

The Longevity Argument: How long was the person good? There is something to be said for success over a long period of time. It's amazing when someone can retain their abilities despite advancing in age. With that said, this argument never usually comes out until a younger runner achieves something the older runner never did.

The Consistency Argument: How predictable was the athlete's performance?  Some athletes range from very bad to brilliant, whereas others seem to always be very good. People making this argument often approach the debate from a "who would I pick on my team if I were the team captain?" approach. There's value to knowing what you're going to get.

The Peak Argument: How good were they when they were at their best? This is the obvious counter-argument to the Longevity Argument. Who cares how long someone kept competing, tell me how good they were for their best 3 or 5 years.  This argument assumes that motivation to keep going isn't relevant to a discussion of greatness.

The "If Only..." Argument (aka The Prefontaine Argument): What would have happened if only {whatever happened} hadn't actually happened? This argument always gets used when discussing careers cut short due to death, illness, injury, or even early retirement, as in the case of Herb Elliott (surely he would have kept winning had he kept running, no?). A lot of people like to give athletes bonus points for what they wanted them to achieve.

The Trendsetter Argument (aka The Fosbury Argument): How much did the person do for their sport/event? This argument gives a high amount of credit to anyone who changed the way the sport/event was played. It could be explicit, like being the first to flop a certain way or implicit, like racing with a certain style or approach. This argument is particularly common when debating coaches.

NEW: The Authority Argument (2021 Addition, thx Cush): Do experts in the field regard this person as the best? This argument assumes that the highest performers know a little more about what it takes, and therefore their opinions matter. You need to be careful here. Context matters. Old rivalries and narratives tend to color a lot of these opinions.

And a couple you see way too much from anonymous trolls on message boards:

Troll #1: The "What have you done for me lately?" Argument: How fast did the person run their last race? You hear this occasionally when a person gets injured or runs a bad race and some hoser declares that they suck. I've honestly never heard this argument made in a real life conversation before, but it's the first weapon in a message board troll's arsenal.

Troll #2: The "Must Be Drugs" Argument: How likely is it that the person's marks are the result of PEDs or other extenuating circumstances? This is the cynic's anti-argument. It allows the debator to avoid acknowledging the arguments of the other side, by casting suspicion on them entirely. BALCO made this argument much more common (and more plausible, sadly), but it's been around for ages (Lasse Viren comes to mind).

Troll #3: The "Must be the Shoes" Argument (2021 Addition): How likely are the person's times being boosted by the latest shoe technology? Personally, I am probably more on the troll side than not, but when everyone is using the same shoes, this argument only has teeth when comparing between eras. Then again, is the effect any greater than cinder tracks or leather shoes? It is if you want to win the debate!

Let the Debates Begin

It's possible I missed a few, and if so I hope you'll tell me in the comments. And since I'm talking about debates, I thought I'd make some observations about some of the accomplishments I noted at the top. Note: I don't feel qualified to debate Gregson vs Doyle, however, so I'm going to leave that for someone with a little more expertise on the subject, perhaps you, in the comments. (2021 note: due to excessive spam, I've disabled comments on Make the Leap)

Rudisha vs Kipketer: Two years ago, Kaki looked poised to dominate the 800m for the foreseeable future. Today, he's the clear #2 behind David Rudisha. That debate seems settled. It also seems premature to compare Rudisha's career with Kipketer's, as the latter competed for many years and Rudisha is just getting started. Will he match Kipketer's three World Championship golds or win the elusive Olympic gold that neither Coe nor Kipketer could attain?

What we can debate, however, is whether Rudisha's 2010 is superior to Kipketer's 1997. In 1997, Kipketer tied Seb Coe's world record in July, and then broke it twice in August. All three times continue to rank 2nd, 3rd, and T-5th all-time. Oh yeah, he also won both the Indoor and Outdoor World Championship titles. That's some major Hardware.

Rudisha has had an amazing year, and it's not necessarily over. Even if he doesn't compete again, though, he's broken the world record and run the 1st, 4th, and 10th fastest times ever. Even if we take away Kipketer's Hardware on the basis that Rudisha didn't compete in any WC meets, the nod to "greatest 800m season ever" still has to go to Kipketer, albeit barely. It's too bad Rudisha didn't run World Indoors this year...

Solinsky vs Lagat:  These two athletes rewrote the US record books this season by breaking the 10k and 5k records, respectively.  But who had the better season?  

Let's start with Solinsky. First he blew everyone away by smashing Meb's 10k AR. He then proceeded to run three of the top five times ever by an American at 5k. His worst race, a 13:08 at Pre, would have ranked him 6th all-time on the US list. And yet.

And yet Bernard Lagat has had another Lagatian season. He won the World Indoors 3000m and the USA 5000m title (a meet Solinsky skipped). He then set the AR for 5000m both indoor (13:11.50) and outdoor (12:54.12) and ran 3:32 and 7:32 in various European races. In their one head-to-head race, Lagat beat Solinsky (his AR 5000m performance).

Given the advantage in Hardware, Record Books and Scoreboard arguments, Lagat has had the better season. But it isn't over, and I believe Solinsky has a chance to make up some ground. That's because he's been as consistent as any athlete in the world up to this point. His three European 5000m races have all been between 12:55.5 and 12:56.6.

To me, that's a clear sign that there's more left in the tank. Someone can run a perfect race once, and maybe even twice. But there's no way he's run three perfect races this season. What this means is that 12:56 is more in the range of "very good" for Solinsky, and if he can pop a great race, that time could come down quite a bit.  

Would it be enough to tip the scales in his season's favor? That's hard to say. It probably depends on whether Bernard Lagat is still crossing the line while Solinsky is celebrating.

Wheating vs Manzano: If you had told me earlier this summer that Wheating's 1500m time would be faster than Manzano's, but Manzano would equal Wheating's 800m time, I would have scoffed at you. Yet that's where we find ourselves now. Both Manzano and Wheating have run 1:44.56 for 800m, and Wheating's smokin' 3:30.90 is much faster than Manzano's 3:33.51 1500m or 3:50.64 mile.

Wheating is leading the head-to-head matchup 2-1, having run his two best races (Pre and Monaco) when Manzano ran his two biggest stinkers (and they were indeed stinkers). But Manzano beat Wheating at his own event at the Stockholm 800m. 

And there's still time for Lopez Lomong to reinsert himself in the discussion. He was the USA Outdoor champ over Manzano--in a race Wheating skipped--and ran 3:32.20 earlier in the season. He was behind Wheating in both of his best races, however, and hasn't shown much range outside the mile. I never would have thought it going into the spring but based on his Consistency, his Scoreboard, and his amazing times, Andrew Wheating is now the best middle distance runner in the US.


Final thoughts from 2021: it's amazing to me how big Chris Solinsky and Andrew Wheating were (physically and metaphorically) back in 2010. These debates definitely feel like they are of another time.

Overall, though, I think the core debate tactics still hold up and it was fun to add a 3rd troll argument into the archive! If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, let me know at Bryan at or @maketheleapbook.